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Rescuing Sir Shadi Lal

A few street names, hospitals and buildings still remind us that once Punjab was a rich mosaic of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities

Rescuing Sir Shadi Lal

After the partition of the Punjab in 1947, there has been a strong tendency, on both sides of the Radcliffe line to whitewash the history of the province in communal terms. Hence, Muslim names and references have almost disappeared in Indian Punjab while in Pakistani Punjab hardly anyone remembers the Hindu and Sikh stalwarts of the province. A few street names, hospitals and buildings still remind us that once the Punjab was a rich mosaic of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and lately Christian, communities, but except for that a concerted effort has been made to obliterate the multi-cultural and multi-religious history of the Punjab.

In this attempt of rewriting and whitewashing history, one name has been buried in Pakistani Punjab despite the unmatched illustrious service of the gentleman to the province and to the country — that of the Right Honourable Rai Bahadur Sir Shadi Lal, Kt, PC. Sir Shadi Lal was distinguished in more than one way, and therefore it is important that we know and remember him, especially as a person who rose to such heights despite the odds, and excelled at a time when the British and Indian politicians were at loggerheads.

Shadi Lal was born in 1872 in Rewari, now in the Indian state of Haryana, in a family of well-to-do Aggarwal businessmen. His mother died when he was only four years old, but his father, Lala Ram Pershad, and his uncle, Lala Ramji Das, ensured that the young child was not bereft of any of the luxuries of life. From his childhood, his biographer K.L. Gauba notes, Shadi Lal exhibited unmatched brilliance. Gauba wrote: “Languages, classical and modern, came to him with ease, as if they were his mother tongue; he handled mathematics, as if he was special gifted for them (sic) and he took to science with readiness.”

After completing his matriculation in Rewari, Shadi Lal moved to study in Lahore at the Forman Christian College. Under the steady leadership of Sir James Ewing, Forman Christian College had become one of the most sought after colleges in northern India, and so it was only natural for the young Shadi Lal to opt for it for his intermediate studies. Taking the strong combination of English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Sanskrit, Shadi Lal stood in the first division in the intermediate examinations.

Read also: Rescuing Sir Shadi Lal-II

After FC College, Shadi Lal joined the famed Government College for his bachelors and masters degrees. He took the subjects of English, Physics and Chemistry for his examinations in 1894, and to the surprise of none — as his brilliance had already become talk of the town — stood first in the whole province. He then read for an MA in Physics, again securing the first division.

Shadi Lal’s achievements were such that the famed F.E. Smith, the then Lecturer in Roman Law at Oxford and later the Lord Chancellor, told Shadi Lal that it was unnecessary for him to attend his classes exclaiming that “you know as much Roman Law as I do, you need not come to me any more!”

The universities of India could not satiate his thirst for learning and so he turned to the oldest seat of learning in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford. For a time it seemed that with Shadi Lal there was a great scientist in the making, but at Balliol College Oxford, he eventually turned to law as his primary subject.

At Oxford, Shadi Lal again collected laurels upon laurels and soon collected an impressive list of prizes: he became the Boden Sanskrit Scholar in 1896, took honours in Physics and Mathematics in 1898, became the Arden Law Scholar at Gray’s Inn in 1899, was the Honours’ man of the Council of Legal Education in 1899, won the prize in Constitutional Law in the same year, and topped the University of Oxford examination in the Bachelor of Civil Law.

Shadi Lal’s achievements were such that the famed F.E. Smith, the then Lecturer in Roman Law at Oxford and later the Lord Chancellor, told Shadi Lal that it was unnecessary for him to attend his classes exclaiming that “you know as much Roman Law as I do, you need not come to me any more!”

Shadi Lal retuned to Lahore in 1900 and began his legal practice. In 1909, in recognition of his legal acumen, the King-Emperor in the New Year’s honours list created him a ‘Rai Bahadur’. The following year, he contested the elections of the newly constituted Punjab Legislative Council, created under the Minto-Morley reforms, from the University of the Punjab. In a closely fought election, he defeated a fellow member of the Bar, Mian Mohammad Shafi, and became the member to represent the university in the Council.

Even in the Legislative Council, Shadi Lal, never forgot the law courts. Both in April 1910 and March 1911, he forcefully argued that the Punjab Chief Court should be raised to the status of a chartered high court. Speaking in the debate, Shadi Lal lamented that “while we are doing everything to put this province on a footing of equality with other sisters provinces and thereby removing the impression which prevails in some quarters that the Punjab is a backward province, no effort seems to have been made so far as to raise the Chief Court to the status of a Chartered High Court.”

Shadi Lal also contended that the extra expenditure of the High Court would not be more than Rs60,000 to a 100,000 per year, which, since the province was in a healthy financial state, could easily bear. He, therefore, proposed that with the upcoming Delhi Durbar of December 1911, where for the first time a reigning monarch would visit India, this upgradation should be announced. He said: “Eastern people always associate the Coronation with the grant of political concessions and privileges. May I suggest for Your Honour’s consideration that the raising of the Chief Court to the status of a High Court might well be the King-Emperor’s Coronation gift to the province…”

Mian Mohammad Shafi agreed with Shadi Lal and exclaimed that while the Punjab lagged behind the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh at the time of the establishment of the Chief Court, it had by now even surpassed the United Provinces in terms of development. Shafi saw the continuation of the Chief Court as an ‘absolute anomaly’ and argued that “having shown that we are absolutely in advance of that Province, I ask why should we be left in the background in regard to our highest tribunal of justice?”

To be continued…

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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